Over the last couple of years, I have visited three different museums of computing. NSBBQ in 2009 and 2010 visited the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park and the Museum of Computing in Swindon respectively. At this year’s WWDC I got the chance, along with a great group of friends, to visit the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.
While each has its interesting points, each also has its disappointments. My principle problem is this: most of the kit is switched off. Without a supply of electrons and an output device, most computers from my childhood just look like beige typewriters. Earlier computers look like poorly thought out hi-fi equipment, or refrigerators that Stanley Kubrick tarted up to use as props. The way you find out just how much computers have advanced over the last few decades is not by looking at the cases: it’s by using the computers.
If you’re anything like me, you keep track of your finances and tax return figures in Numbers. Now imagine doing it in Visicalc. Better still: try doing it in Visicalc. Or take your iOS app, and implement the core features in Microsoft BASIC (or MC6809 machine code, if you’re feeling hardcore). Write your next blog post in PenDown. It’s this experience that will demonstrate just how primitive even a 15 year old desktop computer feels. And the portables? See if you can lift one!
Of course, complaining is the easy part. Fixing it is harder. Which is why I’m now a volunteer at the Swindon museum of computing, on the team that designs the gallery. My main goal is to make the whole experience more interactive. In the short term, this means designing programming challenges for kids to try out: let’s face it, if we want more children to be interested in programming, we need to make programming more interesting to children. I certainly don’t relish the prospect of becoming a portable brain in a pickle jar just because the next generation doesn’t know any objective-c.
So it won’t happen overnight, but if I’m at all successful then we should be able to make the museum gallery more interactive, more educational, and more fun. To find out how it’s going, follow @MuseumComputing.